Josef Newgarden knew the odds were against him in a bid to overtake Alex Palou for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, and the second half of Sunday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline was making things even more challenging.
Then came the last pit stop of the race at World Wide Technology Raceway, and Newgarden got stuck in traffic with his chance to win a fourth consecutive race at the track slipping away. He knew he had to do something, but that something ended up being wrong.
Riding behind the lapped car of Devlin DeFrancesco, Newgarden’s No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet got a touch high approaching Turn 2, and the debris in that groove didn’t mesh with right-side Firestone tires. The next thing Newgarden knew, he couldn’t keep the car from pushing toward the outside wall.
“I was just trying to catch up,” Newgarden said after the race ended with a 25th-place finish and elimination from title contention. “I knew we were going to lose to someone in fuel save – most likely (Scott) Dixon or somebody – even if the yellow comes out I think we’re still behind. So, I was just trying to get through cars as quickly as I could when we pitted, and it didn’t work out.
“I got in the marbles, got a just touch too high. I was trying, I was trying to catch up. It ended up not being a good move. That’s where we landed.”
Newgarden will head to the season’s final two races 125 points behind Palou. He needed to be within 108 points to have any chance at the third series championship of his career.
Newgarden’s challenge now is to get back to the second position, where he has finished each of the past three seasons. Dixon, who won Sunday’s race, is 51 points ahead of him with two races remaining – the BITNILE.COM Grand Prix of Portland on Sept. 3 at Portland International Raceway and the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on Sept. 10 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“Look, we put together a good car, a good race,” Newgarden said. “It just didn’t work out, so we’ll go on to the next one.”
Pato O’Ward presented Sunday’s second-place finish in the best light possible.
“I’m happy with the result today,” he said. “Another second place in the books for 2023.”
These types of days are mounting for the driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. He finished second for the fourth time this season and the 10th time in his career.
O’Ward now has 20 career top-three finishes in 70 races in this series – that’s a solid 28.5 percent -- but only four wins. Along with the 10 seconds are six third-place finishes.
Sunday, O’Ward beat every other driver that made at least four pit stops, but Dixon made only three in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. When O’Ward heard from his team that Dixon was trying to make it the rest of the way on one fewer stop, he didn’t doubt the six-time series champion would score his 55th career victory.
“He’s going to make it to the end,” O’Ward said. “So, I was (resigned) that we were second in true running.”
O’Ward has won races in each of the past two seasons, and he hasn’t given up that he can extend his streak to three seasons.
“Hopefully we’ll get that elusive No. 1 that we’re trying to look for,” he said. “Just keep on pushing.”
Another Malukas Memory
David Malukas hadn’t stopped thinking about the standout moment of last season, when he dueled with a pair of Team Penske drivers – Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin – on this 1.25-mile oval to score the best finish of his young career.
Malukas couldn’t replicate that second-place finish in his return, but finishing third was still mighty memorable. To top it off, he beat all three of Roger Penske’s drivers, including reigning series champion Will Power in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.
“It was really good,” said Malukas, who drives the No. 18 HMD Trucking Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD. “Our car was a race-winning car. We were right there with Newgarden at the start, and I knew if we put our head down … (but) the strategy didn’t work out.”
Malukas jumped from sixth to fourth at the start and was on a fuel-saving strategy throughout much of the first half of the race. But his stop on Lap 168 dropped him to 14th, which required a change in approach.
“We were losing too much time,” he said. “We were committed to one (strategy), and then we had to switch (to another strategy). We had to push.
“We lost a lot of time trying to make It (on three stops). Because our car was very good, we managed to make it (back) up to P3.”
That was enough to score his second career podium finish and set him up for another year of anticipating a return to World Wide Technology Raceway.
Odds and Ends
- Dixon drove with discoloration around his left eye after being struck with a close-range Nerf gun shot by his 3-year-old son, Kit.
- While Dixon used excellent fuel saving to score the big victory, the race was competitive behind him. Six drivers led, and the 217 on-track passes for position were the most for a series race at this track. The 80 passes within the top 10 tied the track record.
- Rookie Benjamin Pedersen saw his race end almost before it started. Approaching Turn 1 on the opening lap, the No. 55 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet was bumped from behind and out of the race by Ed Carpenter’s No. 33 BITNILE.com Chevrolet. The owner/driver of Ed Carpenter Racing was assessed a stop-and-hold penalty.
- In a first for the series, Santino Ferrucci (No. 14 Bommarito Chevrolet of AJ Foyt Racing) became the first driver to use Firestone’s alternate red-sidewall tires in an oval race. He made the switch on Lap 7 as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES offered two tire options on an oval for the first time.
- Callum Ilott’s race ended on Lap 58 when he hit the wall in Turn 2 with the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet. He was in 11th place at the time and finished 27th.
- Takuma Sato’s five-race season in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 11 Deloitte Honda ended with wall contact in Turn 2 on Lap 122. His best finish of the year was seventh in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Two-time Indy 500 winner Sato finished ninth in the first race of the Iowa Speedway doubleheader.
- O’Ward and Newgarden had a couple of close calls together, the second appearing to involve light side-by-side contact as they approached Turn 3 on Lap 136. O’Ward wasn’t pleased with what he deemed an unnecessary hip check from Newgarden on the inside lane.
- Rookie Linus Lundqvist had a memorable first series oval race in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing. He started 12th and moved into the top 10 but lost momentum late in the race when he drifted high in Turn 4. He finished 18th.
- Dixon will go for his first three-race winning streak since the start of the 2020 season when the series resumes next weekend at Portland.
- Christian Rasmussen of HMD Motorsports will take a 50-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Hunter McElrea into next week’s INDY NXT by Firestone race at Portland International Raceway after they finished first and third, respectively, in Saturday night’s delayed race at World Wide Technology Raceway. Three races remain in the season.